Looking back on The Black Rep

Elizabeth Lewis

Ebony feature recently put the Black Rep, St. Louis’ premiere black theatre company. Few would have thought it could attain such success from its humble beginnings as a Washington University theater group.

The company, founded in 1976 by Ron Himes, an artist-in-residence at the University, actually had its beginnings as the Phoenix Theater Troupe on campus. As students, Himes and two of his friends wanted to create more opportunities for themselves and other African American students to perform on campus.

Marsha Cann, one of Himes’ friends, was the only African American theater major at the time, and one of her junior projects was to direct a one-act play called “Ceremonies of Dark Old Men.” Cann used friends in her project, one of whom was Himes.

“Ron was [the character] Blue, and that is when he was bitten by the theater bug,” said Cann.

The first semester of Cann’s senior year, her friends and other students in the troupe started performing around campus doing one-act plays and various scenes.

“Before I graduated, [Himes and other students] put the seed money together to form the Phoenix Theater Troupe,” said Cann. “It provided a venue for creative expression through drama.”

“The theater department at the time was not doing much of any work by African American authors. We were trying to create some opportunities for ourselves and for [other] African Americans to develop and showcase their talents,” said Himes.

The first show the new troupe performed was “The Gentleman Caller,” by Ed Bullins, in the lounge of the Women’s Building. The play, in addition to serving as an opportunity for actors to perform, was symbolic for other reasons.

“The play spoke to identity and [to the] defining of the self,” said Himes.

Students appreciated the meaning of the play and other later performances, and the troupe developed quite a following.

“The response of the campus was really strong, particularly from the black students. Some of them became our core audience when we moved off of the campus and into the community,” said Himes.

The company became incorporated in 1976 and adopted its new name – The Black Rep. In the winter of 1981, the company got its first official space on the corner of St. Louis Avenue and 23rd Street after they renovated the interior of a church. This was a big step for a student organization that had only established itself a few years before.

“We didn’t realize at the time how huge it was. We were immersed in getting work done, visibility and raising funds. We didn’t realize its scope,” said Himes.

In the early ’90s, the company moved from its old location to the renovated Grandel Theatre in the Grand Center area, the St. Louis’ arts and cultural district.

Since then, the company has established themselves as a force locally and nationally.

“Our biggest accomplishment has been longevity – growing more stable and becoming a better institution. [We have] established ourselves as one of the major cultural institutions in St. Louis and in America. We have been able to sustain ourselves. We have a professional internship program, and we are still doing the things we started out to do,” said Himes.

Cann, who still works with the company by helping organize fundraisers and subscription parties, said that a lot of the success of the company has to do with Himes himself.

“Ron gives excellence and expects it. He is an example and a role model; he is the glue that holds us together,” said Cann.

Junior Kristal Matlock, a student in Himes’ History of African American Theater class at the University, admires him for his work with black theater.

“He instills the need for black theater in his students by using the theater as a political tool and to inspire change and education in the black community,” she said.

Himes himself is happy to be back on the University’s campus after a nearly three decade-long absence.

“I am very proud to have developed a relationship with the University for the past three years,” said Himes. “It is great to be back to the place where we started.”

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